The Choices We Make When We're Not Looking
by Joanne Sales
A friend of mine, Miriam, was in her last year of high school
in 1967 in a small town in Oregon, a preacher’s daughter,
engaged and ready to be married at the age of 18. While driving
with a friend in her mother’s car, she picked up two free
spirited hitchhikers who were headed for San Francisco. Something
snapped. Miriam handed her engagement ring and car keys to her
friend, stepped out onto the pavement and hitchhiked in the opposite
direction of her conditioning.
I love that story. I love Miriam. She is a bold, generous person
who identifies with worker ants, and works like one for the common
The preset life pattern that Miriam was programmed to fulfill
was not bad, but it wasn’t her choice. Until that afternoon,
she was on automatic pilot. In preset mode. Then those hitchhikers
hit the preset erase button. In a matter of minutes, Miriam saw
the pattern, hopped out of the car with no clean socks, toothbrush
or packed lunch, and changed her life forever.
Those things happen sometimes.
More often they don’t.
Because of presets.
Presets are pre-chosen settings determining how a computer program
will run, automatically, until someone changes them. (The type
will be black, font size 12, etc.) Presets aren’t bad; they
are chosen because they are useful, effective, simple, conventional
or convenient. We can change computer presets, but most people
Cultural presets tell us what to wear, think, do and value - when,
where and how. In a closed system, cultural presets will rule
- unless we make conscious, intentional choices to change them.
We can change cultural presets, but most people don’t.
As children, we are influenced by family, peers, and environment.
These influences become presets: unquestioned assumptions, actions
that we put on automatic pilot, and arbitrary attitudes that we
assume to be universal laws. That’s how we make sense of
the weird world.
Sometimes, our lives are totally determined by cultural presets.
But some times, we pick up a hitchhiker, read a book, or run into
a new idea behind the bowling alley - and we wonder. Maybe my
automatic pilot is out of date. Maybe my habitual ways will not
take me where I want to go. Maybe the color of what I now believe
clashes with my old beliefs still hanging in the closet. That
is when we hand over the keys to the car and our engagement rings,
and walk down unknown roads.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the uncomfortable feeling that
comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the
same time. We feel cognitive dissonance when our behavior clashes
with our beliefs, or when a new realization conflicts with an
old preset. The tension of cognitive dissonance forces us to either
lie to ourselves or change.
So what can we do?
Plato recommends personal re-education.
“If a man discovers evil in himself he must do everything
he can to escape these faults, re-educating himself and cultivating
The word “evil” is not popular now, 2400 years after
Plato lived, but we can substitute another name for any of the
seriously undesirable qualities we find inside ourselves. The
idea is the same
In 1776, the average lifespan was 35. That was barely enough time
to grow up. Now our lives have been extended and our boundaries
stretched. We have front row seats to just about anything everywhere.
We are no longer confined to our sub-culture closets. We have
freedoms our ancestors never dreamed of. It is said that we live
like the kings and queens of old.
With such freedom, it is possible for us to transcend the limiting
confines and blind spots of our culture. We can become conscious
of our unconscious choices and choose again - on purpose. That’s
how we grow up, and humanity evolves.
We may have received faulty or limited guidance, but transformation
is in our hands.
We just have to have the wisdom to pick up the right hitchhikers!